The best format for the MLS playoffs isn't yet feasible, simply because not every team has its own stadium, and to truly reward the best regular-season teams, the entire format would have to be reworked.
League officials claim the two-leg conference semifinals system is retained so each playoff team gets a home game: an admirable sentiment, but also misplaced, since, again, it would make more sense to reward the highest-finishing teams with home games, and let the others scrap it out on the road.
The downside of a one-game conference semifinal would be, of course, a higher-seeded team in a one-game playoff getting bumped off by a lower seed who packs it in and sneaks a win with a lucky goal or atrocious refereeing decision or on penalties. The higher seed should still be able to prevail, but we all know the contrarian nature of soccer can trip up even the best teams in these situations. I can't see the advantage of using a one-game format in the first round, unless somehow the highest seeds received byes.
If a lower seed has had to fight and scrap just to get into the playoffs, it can be sharper and hungrier than a team that clinched its spot with games to spare. Flawed though it may be, the two-game format can alleviate, somewhat, the effect on a team that clinched its playoff spot early, and thus finished out the season either playing less-intense games and/or with backups and reserves.
Coaches and players talk about the need to peak in time for the playoffs, but the MLS record books are full of higher-seeded teams that got thumped in the first round, even over two legs, or in a few cases, three (San Jose vs. Miami, 2001 playoffs, to cite one example). To counter this possibility, Crew head coach Sigi Schmid rested his Supporters' Shield regulars in the penultimate regular-season game, which Columbus lost to New York, 3-1, and rolled out the first team for the finale, a 1-0 victory that snuffed the hopes of D.C. United.
Even so, the Crew needed an incredible 92nd minute goal by Stephan Lenhart on Saturday to gain a 1-1 tie with a Kansas City team playing a man down following the ejection of Herculez Gomez in the 75th minute. Had the Columbus been in its own stadium for a one-game showdown, it would have played differently, but the cold logic is that any MLS team, regardless of its record, can beat any other on the day.
That's what parity is all about, so why should it change for the playoffs? Who's to say Kansas City wouldn't have been able to hold off the Crew and snatch a goal through Davy Arnaud or Claudio Lopez or even Jack Jewsbury, who did just that to upend defending champion San Jose in the 2004 playoffs?
Jewsbury scored that third goal in a 3-0 win at home, after San Jose had won the first leg, 2-0. Yet that playoff vividly demonstrated that a higher seed can overcome a two-goal deficit at home, difficult though it may be, and last weekend, only one higher seed playing on the road - Chivas USA - came out of the first leg trailing (1-0). The other three games ended tied.
Houston clinched the Western Conference title weeks ago yet came to New York relatively game-sharp, due to its Concacaf Champions' League duties. One can assume it would have blown away the Red Bulls at Robertson Stadium had they been playing a one-gamer, but funny things happen in soccer games.
The two-game conference semifinals give the league another valuable commodity: eight playoff games of heightened drama and intensity, with extensive media exposure and television coverage.
Using a one-game showdown to decide the conference champions and thus the MLS Cup participants is straight out of the NFL model, yet even the NFL "punishes" wild-card teams by prohibiting them from hosting a playoff game unless they face another wild-card team in the conference final. This can be adapted for MLS.
Ideally, what MLS would do is give four teams byes - either the top two in each conference or the conference winners plus the next two best teams - and match the other four teams in one-game, midweek showdowns: No. 8 plays at No. 5, and No. 7 plays at No. 6 on Wednesday and Thursday following the final weekend of regular-season play.
The two survivors would play at the third- and fourth-seeds the following weekend, again, one game, winner take all. Those higher seeds would only have one week to market and promote those games, true, but from a competitive standpoint, they would be playing teams coming off midweek games on just a few days' rest. That's the reward for finishing higher.
The two teams that come out of the week's activity would play the top two seeds in two-game semifinals, with the winners advancing to MLS Cup. The drawback for the higher seeds is they could be rusty after sitting out a week, but playing over two legs would offer them a chance to regroup should they struggle in the first game.
I hope the MLS Competition Committee can at least consider reversing its playoff format: i.e., using one-game playoffs -- with the higher seed hosting -- in the first round, and spreading the conference championships over two legs. Not every playoff team would be "guaranteed' a home game, but so what? The first-round winners would indeed play at home in the second round.
Ever hear of "win and you're in?"